Flexible solar cell sheet.

Flexible solar cell print trials.

Q&A: organic photovoltaic printable plastic solar cells

Flexible, large area, cost-effective, reel-to-reel printable plastic solar cells: your questions answered.

  • 24 August 2011 | Updated 14 October 2011

Background

The Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC) is a research collaboration between:

  • CSIRO
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Monash University
  • BlueScope Steel
  • Innovia Films
  • Securency Limited.

with support from:

  • Robert Bosch SEA

The consortium has received funding from:

  • Victorian Government Department of Primary Industries
  • Victorian Government Department of Business and Innovation
  • Australian Solar Institute.

VICOSC brings together over 50 researchers across Victoria who are conducting research into new materials and processes to enable the production of flexible, large area, cost-effective, reel-to-reel printable, plastic solar cells. 

These thin film, mass-produced plastic solar cells will allow energy to be generated where it is used, in the home and workplace. Given their flexible nature they could be integrated into building fixtures such as roofs, walls and furnishings.

CSIRO, in particular, played the leading role in the development of Australia’s polymer banknotes, a technology that is now exported to around 25 countries around the world.

Through the involvement of Securency Limited (the world’s leading manufacturer of polymer banknotes), VICOSC is looking to develop solar cells that are printed in the same way as polymer banknotes are printed.

Why use organic photovoltaic solar cells (OPV's) instead of the traditionally used silicon?

Most commercially available solar cells are made from a refined, highly purified silicon crystal, similar to those used in the manufacture of integrated circuits and computer chips.

The high cost of these silicon solar cells and their complex production process has generated considerable interest in developing alternative solar cell technologies, such as organic photovoltaics.

The benefits of using organic photovoltaics (OPV’s) include:

  • low cost, environmentally friendly production methods
  • light weight, flexible substrates will allow a marked change in how and where
    energy can be generated.

How efficient will these OPV cells be?

Efficiency is one of the key challenges for organic solar cells. Currently device efficiencies are around 6 per cent, we are aiming to increase this to 10 per cent or more.

What happens to the efficiency if they get dirty?

Like any solar cell if they are covered in dust the efficiency will be reduced. However, there are many examples of ‘self-cleaning’ plastics that repel dust. These could be applied to the front of the cells.

How long will these cells last?

Another key challenge researchers face is improving the durability and lifespan of OPV flexible solar cells. We are optimistic that device lifetimes of the order of 10 years will be achievable.

How long will it be before we see these solar cells commercially available?

Commercial print trials have just commenced at Securency Pty Ltd International (bank note printers). We estimate that this research has another five years of development required before these cells are ready to commercialise and deploy into homes and workplaces.

How much will they cost?

It is not possible at this stage to give indicative unit pricing for these products. What we can say is that even small improvements in energy conversion efficiency, product durability and the capacity for large-scale production of organic polymers will make a compelling economic case for the widespread adoption of organic photovoltaic solar cell technologies.

By way of example it will take just 10 tonnes of plastic to produce 100 000 of OPV solar cell film, (about the same amount required to produce a container of plastic bags). 100 000 km of solar cell film produced per year will generate the equivalent energy production from a conventional coal fired or nuclear power station.

How do you see these being used in the home and workplace?

Organic solar cells could be used in a variety of applications on both flexible and rigid substrates. Examples include coatings on portable electronic devices, enabling the form of the devices to be maintained, as components of clothing or curtains through to sheets that are placed on the roof. Notably, organic solar cells are particularly well suited to diffuse or indoor lighting, environments where the efficiencies of silicon solar cells rapidly drop off.

You talked about generating power in homes and workplaces; can excess capacity be uploaded to the national grid?

As with any distributed energy generation technology excess capacity can be uploaded to the grid. If adopted on a very wide scale, the variable nature of sunlight would require some changes to the way our electricity grids function to cope with these variations. However, it is important to note that most of the world’s electricity is used for refrigeration and air-conditioning, demand for which is greatest when the sun is at its brightest.

Learn more about CSIRO Future Manufacturing Flagship.